A Leader’s Negative Space

The phrase “negative space” comes from photography. In an image, there’s the positive space or the subject of primary focus, and then there’s everything else. Envision an Ansel Adams’ piece of austere mountains. While the peaks are the photograph’s focus, the blurred lines of shadows, surrounding trees, and floating clouds carry importance, just differently. 

Business and entrepreneurship have their own conceptions of negative space. Think of the things that you need to do but don’t need front of mind. These become Adams’ blurred lines – essential but not a daily focus.

Mark Zuckerberg is on to negative space. He wears the same style and color of tee shirt every day. The rationale – if Zuckerberg can send life’s mundane tasks to the background, he can maximize his focus on business decisions. His philosophy is that there’s a limit to our mental capacity each day; our brain cells can only burn so much glucose. Zuckerberg’s trademark grey tee shirt symbolizes his commitment to using his capacity to the fullest – to start with as much capacity as he humanly can by sending the nonessential pieces of life to the back. The critical decisions of the day take center stage. 

I think there’s so much to be said for his mentality. For most of us, the tendency is to give focus, mental energy, or even anxiety to the things in life that aren’t on the day’s goal list. This habit siphons our mental capacity for what is important during the workday. But what if we could send the things that need to be done some other time to the background and pour our concentration into the day? Powerful.

This isn’t to say that the tasks we focus on don’t need their time in the spotlight. They do, just not right now. Like Adams’ floating clouds, these items have their place. Day-in, day-out, it becomes a question of monitoring versus acting on the negative space and instead allowing yourself to home in on what the highest and best use of your time is.

Negative space is critical in business. You won’t itemize it on your profit and loss ledger or find it in your company’s bank records, but it will allow you to amplify your productivity. It’s a boon to you and your team when you’re all mindfully focused on the day.

The value is incedibly high for leaders and managers. Harnessing negative space is a driver of strategic initiatives and company growth. Imagine the ability to put 10% of your headspace into strategizing (and out of worrying about execution and outcomes). From this jumping off place lies the opportunity for exponential growth in efficiency. 

As leaders, we would do well to help our teams turn current headspace into negative headspace – trade up today’s worries for a cache later on’s to-dos. Technology and more streamlined process management tools play a beautiful role in creating useful negative space. While it may appear that any investment in negative space may not have an immediately measurable result, the payoff will be enormous to your business. No matter it’s nebulous nature, making the shift to “positive” negative space is invaluable for every company’s bottom line.